Why was Bhekisisa founded?

Back in the early 2010s, the then Mail & Guardian (M&G) editor, Nic Dawes, and Mia Malan, at the time a Knight International Journalism Fellow at the publication, felt it was high time to invest in the journalistic coverage of health and social issues at the newspaper. Many health-related articles in generalist publications were — and still are today — sensationalist or misleading. They stoked fear, misconceptions, and discrimination; they sometimes posed a health hazard by themselves and contribute to social trouble. Diligent and trustworthy health reporting was few and far between. Very few reporters had the time and resources to properly delve into the topic. So, Nic and Mia decided to establish a dedicated health desk under its roof. They called it Bhekisisa — isiZulu for ‘to scrutinise’. Bhekisisa launched in January 2013 with Mia as the editor along with two junior health reporters Mia remains in that role to this day (the number of staff members has since tripled) and is also Bhekisisa’s executive director. But right from the beginning, Bhekisisa was more than just the M&G’s health desk. It was designed to be a Centre for Health Journalism that would not only supply the M&G with health coverage, but also to help improve health reporting across the continent through training activities, fellowships and public events.

Who owns Bhekisisa?

Bhekisisa is an independent non-profit organisation registered with the South African government.  As a result, Bhekisisa has no publisher or owner who might pursue commercial or other interests that run counter to its mission. Instead, Bhekisisa has a board of six expert members from the media, health and legal industries, who oversee it. As mentioned above, the M&G, a limited for-profit company, used to be Bhekisisa’s original home from 2013-19. In July 2019, after massively growing its audience and funding, winning more than 40 awards and tripling the team of permanent staff, Bhekisisa and the M&G decided that Bhekisisa was mature enough to stand on its own feet. The Centre receives almost all its income from philanthropic funding. The contracts of all our donors include a clause in which they commit to zero editorial interference with our coverage.

What are Bhekisisa’s objectives?

Bhekisisa produces reporting that looks at health policy and health-related current affairs in the light of science. We base our coverage on scientific evidence and follow a solutions journalism approach, which means we do not stop at pointing out problems or grievances; instead, we critically evaluate how well (or not) approaches work to address problems and look at lessons that can be learned from it  We aim to empower both decision-makers and citizens to make evidence-based choices and stand up for their rights – all based on dependable, meticulously checked information.

Listen to Mia Malan discuss solutions journalism with David Bornstein from the Solutions Journalism Network

In 2016, Bhekisisa started to do solutions journalism. But what is it? “Think Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie,” David Bornstein from the Solutions Journalism Network tells Bhekisisa’s editor Mia Malan. “These are stories that answer ‘the how.’”

We aim to not only to produce stories with accurate scientific information, but to translate such data into easy-to-understand information, and to make it meaningful to our readers in a way that we explain how it will impact their lives. Our stories are distributed through News24, the Daily Maverick, the Mail & GuardianFinancial Mail and also often via international publications such as El País, and appear on our own website. We provide all copy to our publishing partners for free. Another one of Bhekisisa’s objectives is to create a new generation of health journalists in Africa. To this end, we host media trainings for journalists and civil society, as well as public discussion forums on health issues, bringing together policymakers and specialist audiences.

Want to know more about our resources for journalists and webinars?

How is Bhekisisa funded?

When Bhekisisa was still a desk in the M&G’s newsroom, the newspaper contributed to its budget. However, already back then, it was clear that the M&G alone would not be able to afford the kind of quality journalism, nor the spectrum of activities Bhekisisa was out to do. Hence, in order to get started, Mia and Nic  raised funding from the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ). This proved to be a viable model. In the following years, Bhekisisa successfully applied for funding to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — currently its biggest funder — Open Society Foundations, the Regional Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights Fund (which is, in turn, supported by several international donors), Global Health Strategies, the National Research Foundation, the Canon Collins Educational and Legal Assistance Trust’s Sylvester Stein fellowship, the International Centre for Journalists Facebook Journalism Project, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, the United Nations Population Fund and the Community Media Trust. In addition to philanthropic funding, which covers the lion’s share of its budget, Bhekisisa also has some advertising revenue, funds we generate through moderating webinars and conferences, and we accept donations from individuals.

Why does Bhekisisa accept money from donors?

Independent journalism in general is a sector that is challenging to fund. If it were to rely on subscription payments made by the audience alone, it would be a luxury article accessible only for the rich. Yet most journalists — including us at Bhekisisa — want precisely the opposite: That their coverage is available to everybody. Good journalism is all about keeping the public as a whole informed, helping people to form an opinion and make knowledgeable decisions. Specialised and investigative journalism, such as health coverage, is even more difficult to fund in for-profit newsrooms because it is particularly expensive. That is because specially trained reporters come at a price and need to spend ample time and resources producing stories, even when their audience is often much smaller than that of general-purpose media outlets. And health journalism must carefully navigate a tricky environment: The pharmaceutical industry, healthcare providers, health insurance companies, marketers of unhealthy products, the political sphere — they all come with particular interests, combined with the power and means to press them home. Independent journalism must keep a professional distance from those players and defend its impartiality and integrity. Bhekisisa therefore only raises funds from donors that support its cause and purpose, but, at the same time, respect our editorial independence. In other words: It is us who define our topics, approaches and editorial policies, and only then, do we apply for money from like-minded or sympathetic organisations. Never the other way round. Bhekisisa is, for instance, particularly interested in public health and we do evidence-based reporting, which means we value philanthropic organisations who also follow an evidence-based approach in their work. Moreover, we view health as a social justice and not just a medical issue, so we align ourselves with donors with the same thinking. But we are of course aware of the pitfalls and opportunities of running a donor-funded newsroom; constant reflection and re-assessment help us stand our ground and develop good practice.

Why do philanthropic foundations and similar donors support journalism and media?

Bhekisisa receives support from foundations that are officially recognised as charitable organisations by the authorities of their respective home countries. To be awarded that status, they must demonstrably act in the public interest. This means that they often work on issues where governments and international organisations fall short, or supplement the actions of others. Many donors realise that public awareness and information contribute to their missions. Some also understand that proper independent journalism enjoys much greater public credibility than their own advocacy and public relations ever could — no matter whether the coverage is favourable or critical. They also realise the critical role that the news media can play in holding governments accountable for the implementation of evidence-based policies. Hence, they support quality media reporting on their respective activity areas. But at the same time, they realise that any attempt to control media partners would undermine their own trustworthiness and, therefore, ultimately damage the donor’s own cause.

How does Bhekisisa guarantee editorial independence and self-determination?

Bhekisisa fully subscribes to the values and ethics of professional journalism, as stated by the Press Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media, which are in line with international standards of the profession. These are the guidelines for everything we do. As a consequence, we only accept funding from donors who guarantee us that they will not attempt to influence our reporting, our choice of topics or our editorial decisions. Our donor contracts therefore include clauses, signed by funders, that they have no right to interfere with our editorial decisions. There is also an open understanding between Bhekisisa and its donors that the Centre is free to do stories which are critical of funders or issues that they fund. Should a donor attempt to interfere editorially (it hasn’t yet happened), we would rebuff them, even at the peril of losing that very funding source. Similarly, we will not conceal or whitewash shortcomings or misconduct of our donors that we might notice in the course of our work. Meeting professional standards does not, necessarily, mean that Bhekisisa must remain completely neutral and opinionless. Like every media outlet, we are entitled to define a mission for ourselves and make recommendations — ours is to evaluate potential solutions to health and social justice problems through evidence-based science. We’re guided by science — if a solution has not been proven via sound research, we point that out. If the efficacy and safety of medicines and vaccines have been established via well conducted clinical trials, we don’t promote it, but will report on it in a way that reflects the evidence, or lack thereof. Sound evidence, and not prejudice or vested interest, therefore guides our reporting.

Why should I trust Bhekisisa?

First of all, read our reporting. We do our best to write and speak clearly, to explain complicated issues in an easy-to-understand way, we provide context and we base each fact stated in a report on impeccable sources. We reference all statements and we use peer reviewed studies (during COVID, though, often preprints) as sources, as opposed to media reports referring to the research. We believe that our work speaks for itself. Second, look at the credentials and working methods of our team. We always indicate who worked on our pieces, describe what qualifies them for the job, and let you peek into our engine room. We are open about what we do and how we do it. Last, but not least, do not just take our word for it, but look at the scores of awards both Bhekisisa as a whole and our team members have won. Behind these accolades is a variety of highly respected organisations in South Africa and around the world. Most recently, Bhekisisa was recognised by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, one of South Africa’s most reputable non-profits. But if you have reason to believe that we failed to meet the standards of the Press Code, you may file a complaint with the Press Council. We have committed ourselves to supporting the Council’s investigations and to comply with its rulings.